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McNeill v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division

March 20, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL,[1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          KIMBERLY A. SWANK United States Magistrate Judge.

         This matter is before the court pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c) on the parties' cross motions for judgment on the pleadings [DE # 14 & 18], the parties having consented to proceed pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). Plaintiff Anthony D. McNeill filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of the denial of his application for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits (“DIB”), and supplemental security income (“SSI”). The parties have fully briefed the issues, and the pending motions are ripe for adjudication. On November 10, 2016, the court held oral argument in the matter. The court has carefully reviewed the administrative record and the motions and memoranda submitted by the parties and considered the arguments of counsel. For the reasons set forth below, the court grants Plaintiffs Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, denies Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, and remands the matter to the Commissioner for further proceedings.


         Plaintiff applied for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits on June 16, 2013, and for supplemental security income on June 14, 2013, alleging disability beginning September 6, 1999. (R. 22, 285-93.) The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and a request for hearing was filed. (R. 15, 148-51, 184, 188.) Administrative Law Judge Mark C. Ziercher (“ALJ”) held an initial hearing on August 1, 2014, and a supplemental hearing on March 11, 2015; the ALJ denied benefits in a ruling issued August 3, 2015. (R. 22, 38.) Plaintiffs request for review by the Appeals Council was denied, making the ALJs decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (R. 1.) Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the final administrative decision.


         I. Standard of Review

         The scope of judicial review of a final agency decision denying disability benefits is limited to determining whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's factual findings and whether the decision was reached through the application of the correct legal standards. See Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion; [i]t consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance.” Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted) (alteration in original) (quoting Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966)). “‘In reviewing for substantial evidence, [the court should not] undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner].'” Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001) (internal quotation marks omitted) (first and second alterations in original) (quoting Craig, 76 F.3d at 589). Rather, in conducting the “substantial evidence” inquiry, the court determines whether the Commissioner has considered all relevant evidence and sufficiently explained the weight accorded to the evidence. Sterling Smokeless Coal Co. v. Akers, 131 F.3d 438, 439-40 (4th Cir. 1997). “Judicial review of an administrative decision is impossible without an adequate explanation of that decision by the administrator.” DeLoatche v. Heckler, 715 F.2d 148, 150 (4th Cir. 1983).

         II. Disability Determination

         In making a disability determination, the Commissioner uses a five-step evaluation process. The Commissioner asks, sequentially, whether the claimant: (1) is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) has a severe impairment; (3) has an impairment that meets or equals the requirements of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1; (4) can perform the requirements of past work; and, if not, (5) based on the claimant's age, work experience, and residual functional capacity can adjust to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Albright v. Commr of Soc. Sec. Admin., 174 F.3d 473, 475 n.2 (4th Cir. 1999). The burden of proof and production during the first four steps of the inquiry rests on the claimant. Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th. Cir. 1995). At the fifth step, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that other work exists in the national economy that the claimant can perform. Id.

         III. ALJ's Findings

         Applying the five-step, sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found Plaintiff “not disabled” as defined in the Social Security Act. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2011. (R. 24.) The ALJ noted that Plaintiff had engaged in substantial gainful employment since the alleged onset date, but that he was “hold[ing] his ruling on this issue in abeyance” because he was deciding Plaintiffs claim at a different step of the evaluation process. (Id.) Next, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “left foot joint pain, flat footed (pes planus); obesity; a major depressive dis; an anxiety disorder; and a personality disorder.” (R. 25.) The ALJ did not identify any non-severe impairments. (R. 25-38.) At step three, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiffs impairments were not severe enough, either individually or in combination, to meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. 25.)

         Prior to proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Plaintiffs residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and found that Plaintiff had

the residual functional capacity to perform work at the sedentary exertional level. He can occasionally climb ramps and stairs; never climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; and can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. He can perform work that does not require exposure to moving mechanical parts and high, exposed places. He can perform work that does not require the operation of a motor vehicle. He can perform work that is consistent with the use of a cane to stand and walk[.] He can understand, remember, and perform work tasks at GED Reasoning Level 03. He can perform goal-oriented rather than production-oriented work (e.g., the performance of work tasks in allotted time is more important tha[n] the pace at which the work tasks are performed). He can perform work that involves routine tasks (i.e., no more than frequent changes in core work duties). He can perform work in which independent goal setting or planning occurs no more than frequently. He can have occasional contact with coworkers that is inconsequential or superficial (i.e., no sustained conversations, e.g., mail clerk). He can have occasional contact with the general public that is inconsequential or superficial (i.e., no sustained conversations, e.g., ticket taker).

(R. 27.) In making this assessment, the ALJ found Plaintiffs statements about the severity of his symptoms “partially credible” and listed several reasons for discounting Plaintiffs credibility. (R. 32-33.) At step four, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff could not perform any past relevant work. (R. 35.) At step five, the ALJ determined jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform and listed document preparer, envelope ...

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